Firing Grenades at Somali Pirates Was the Most Fun I've Ever Had

By Jamie Clifton


Stephan with his friends, Gail and Betty.

My friend Stephan is a freelance boat captain and owns his own boat charter business in the Seychelles. It's a pretty amazing gig, all things considered. A couple of years ago, however, Stephan was asked to be Master of the Vessel on a ship sailing from the Seychelles to an island near Somalia. (That title is essentially the same thing as "Captain," by the way, which means he was basically in charge of getting the boat from point A to point B without any hiccups.) The thing about Somalian waters is that they have this irksome little pirate infestation—I'll excuse you if you didn't know already, it's not like it's been in the news much for the past half-decade—which Stephan got to find out about first-hand.

I called him up on Skype and got him to tell me about all the fun he's been having with the Somali pirates of the Arabian Sea.


Stephan with Fyodor, the preacher sailor.

VICE: Hey Stephan. So, tell me how you got yourself into this pirate situation.
Stephan: Well, in August of 2010, I was recruited by some Russians to take an old, wooden square rigger—this beautiful old ship built in 1928—from the Seychelles to Socotra, a small island just off the Somali coast. They were really vague about the travel plans, though, and five days into the trip, I was suddenly told, really casually, that, "Oh, it's actually Montenegro we want to go to now," which is a lot further than Socotra.   

Who's "they"?
We had a guy named Valim, who was the owner's nephew, Fyodor Konyukhov, this famous Russian sailor who was also a preacher and looked a lot like Jesus, and a Russian diplomat, as well as some of his staff. It was him who pulled the strings to let us bring firearms onboard, actually. 

Why did he want to bring firearms with him? Because of the pirate threat?
Yeah, purely because he knew we'd be sailing past the Somali coast. We already had three Spetsnaz—Russian special forces—on board as well, and they were all armed to the teeth. Anyway, we eventually reached Socotra and had to make a load of repairs because the engine was a complete mess by that point.


Stephan with the three Russian Special Forces guys and a small selection of their arsenal.

No trouble up to that point?
Nope, not yet. But it was there we met the two boats that were going to be escorting us the rest of the way: Peter the Great, this big, old Russian warship, and SP36, a gigantic towboat. I went to greet the guys from SP36 and was grabbed by two guys in military uniform and dragged on to the boat. I sat there with the captain and discussed, in very broken English, what route we were going to take, how he was going to protect us and what weapons they had, all over a lot of vodka. I mean, an exceptional amount of vodka.

That sounds like fun.
Yeah, then we exchanged gifts. I gave him a flag from the Seychelles, and I think I wrote something stupid on there, like "From Seychelles, with love," or something, and he gave me a bulletproof vest. Then this huge Russian guy in camo comes in with this fucking massive machine gun—it must have weighed ten kilos. We ended up calling that gun Gail.

Cool. It's good to name your weapons.
Exactly. So I asked the captain if I was going to be armed, if I should get a pistol or something. He was like, "Nyet. Nyet pistol," and I figured, 'Oh well, you don't ask, you don't get, right?' But then that same huge guy comes back in with an AK-74—not a 47, a 74—and gives that to me as my own personal weapon.

What did you call her?
I called her Betty.

Had you fired a gun before this?
Yeah, I'm from South Africa, so I'd done a bit of hunting there, but never anything automatic, so that was all new for me. Then, right after I was given the AK, this guy came back in and gave me a disposable RPG as a present and told me to stash it in my coat so I could take it back to my boat.


Stephan with his disposable RPG.

Wow.
Yeah, so anyway, we set off from there with these two boats flanking us and got out to international waters. We stopped there and a few of the guys I'd met before boarded our boat with a bucketload of weapons and we all sat around chatting for a while. It looked like a gun-runners bar: guns, bullets, shells, helmets, vodka, cigars, everything. Then, all of a sudden, I hear this huge bang and it's someone firing an RPG off one of the other boats.

At pirates?
No, it was one of the crew members' birthdays, so they put on a little presentation. They were sending flares up into the sky then getting marksmen to shoot them down. Then SP36 came past us and the whole of one side of it is full of guys with guns, just emptying out their entire clips across the water. Then we proceeded to start firing our weapons, too. It was great.

Yeah, that sounds fucking cool.
Oh, it was. Firing off heavy weapons, especially when you've got a couple of shots in you, gives you that invincible feeling, so that was fun, and I started to think, "Ah, nothing's going to go wrong on this trip. It's all gonna be fine."


Some of the crew.

Then you remember there are pirates who also have guns.
Exactly. The next morning, when we were coming up close to Yemen, this little boat came up on our port side, armed with Kalashnikovs, a couple of AKs and, apparently, one guy with a sniper rifle, so we all put our body armour on. We weren't allowed to shoot to kill, but we opened up towards them with Gail, and all the bullets hitting the water created this huge column of water in front of their boat. I've never seen anyone hit the deck of a boat and pull a U-turn that quick.   

I bet that was kind of exhilarating.
Yeah, I mean, I never thought I'd get close enough to pirates to actually be able to see the whites in their eyes, you know? And I'm not being a dick here, but you're not scared at any point in that kind of situation. There's no drug in the world that can give you that kind of rush.

OK.
Yeah, I used to sit there and look at my watch, waiting to get another fix, like, "The sun's going down, it's about pirate time again."

Ha. You got another couple of fixes, though, right?
Yeah, that evening, after I finished my shift, I was having a couple of shots with one of the Russian officers, and we hear another boat coming up beside us. We'd travelled a good 30 miles by this point, but they patrol all up and down the coast. They don't go too far or take any big risks, except for the ones that transport the heroin off the Yemeni coast—they're told to attack any boat at all costs.


The SP36, one of the escort boats.

OK.
So yeah, it's dark by this stage and, because their boats are mostly made of fibreglass, you can't really pick them up on the radar, and shining a spotlight out is too much of a giveaway of your location. So we saw them on the radar about three miles out, then in a couple of minutes, they were right up by us—two at the front, three at the back.

Did you go straight for Gail again?
Well, the Russian boat and SP36 intercepted them first and started sending up white flares so we could see what was going on. And I'll tell you what; as soon as you can see them, you start shooting.

Yeah, I bet.
The SP36 was dealing with the two at the front, so I grabbed two guys, ran to the back and waited to spot the muzzle flashes from the boats behind us. You want them to fire, because as soon as you see the flash, you fucking open up. They got really, really close to us—less than 400 metres off our stern. What a lot of people don't realise is that these attacks are very well coordinated; they carry satellite phones to communicate with each other.

Had anyone given you any kind of training in how to deal with that before you left?
I learned how to reassemble an AK in under two minutes, 36 seconds, but I wasn't really supposed to be armed in the first place, so I didn't get any training, no. The three Spetsnaz guys were supposed to be there to handle any situation that happened on the boat.

Jesus. So how did you deal with that attack?
Well, once we knew where they were, we shone a big spotlight at them to blind them—they were still shooting at us blind—but we had the advantage so they backed off.

Was that the end of all the attacks?
Oh no, not at all. The next day, we had another boat come up to us, but that one was more embarrassing than anything. They were driving really fast and one big dick was standing at the front, but SP36 fired off a few warning rounds and this guy just falls flat on his back and they turn around straight away.

Haha. What then?
It was pretty quiet until the next evening, then—oh bro, that evening was the fun evening! I picked up a pirate boat on the starboard side on the GPS, but it kind of looked like it was moving away from us, so I wasn't too worried. I was just putting out my cigarette—and I'll never forget this—when I just check this little red light flying up over us. I looked at one of the Russian guys and he's like, "Aargh! RPG!"


Pirate warfare in open-toed sandals.

Fucking hell.
They're not accurate at all, though. They have an accuracy of, I think, 30 meters, then they kind of spin off wherever. The thing was, both our escort boats were a long way away. One was about two miles ahead, and the deal with the SP36 was that it was always sailing around us in a huge circle, so that was at the apex of its rotation, quite far away from us. That was it, though. The pirates left us after that.

So it was plain sailing all the way from there to Montenegro?
Yeah, pretty much. Although, one day we stopped to refuel and one of the guide-masters was like, "OK, let's go shoot an underwater machine gun while we wait." So I was like, "Fuck yeah," obviously. So yeah, we did that for a bit, then I went and got my rocket launcher and shot that off the front of the boat, which was cool. The whole world vaporizes in front of you and the pop is like nothing you can imagine—my right ear was ringing for about three days. 

Your job sounds amazing, except for the whole being attacked by pirates thing.
Yeah, it's great, but that was definitely the most treacherous, eventful journey I've done. After we'd stopped in Egypt for a bit, we got into the Mediterranean sea, where we had to put up with nine metre swells almost pulling off parts of the boat, then sailed through a live minefield near Albania, which was a lot of fun, then got battered by a sandstorm and hail before we finally got to Montenegro.

I bet that was satisfying.
Yep. The funny thing was, after a trip like that, all you want is a drink, you know? And we ended up pulling into a little seaside town called BAR, spelled B-A-R in capital letters. I was there for about five days and drank myself retarded.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton

More piracy on the high seas:

Pirate Patrolling in Coastal Kenya

Going Undercover with Somalia's Oil-Thirsty Pirates

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